As the school year begins for more than 20,000 students and teachers in Providence public schools, a change in hiring policy has led to praise, concern — and now a lawsuit.
The new policy ends the practice known as "bumping," in which teacher vacancies are filled on the basis of seniority, and institutes an interview-based system that gives principals greater autonomy in selecting faculty.
Under a system of "bumping," the most junior teachers in the school system are also the first to be fired, and first crack at a vacant position goes to the most senior. Excessive shuffling of teachers among schools often results, school and education department officials say, because to eliminate one position the policy requires administrators to send multiple layoff notices and allow numerous teachers the chance to select new positions on the basis of seniority.
The revised hiring process requires applicants to demonstrate knowledge of relevant curricula, show examples of work their students have done, and teach model lessons. Candidates are evaluated by a team made up of the school's principal, the academic department head and teacher representatives.
Six schools implemented the new system this school year, including the new Providence Career and Technical Center, the newly renovated Nathan Bishop Middle School and others that had been sanctioned for continued poor academic performance.
By the 2010-2011 school year, all teacher vacancies will be filled using the new system, said Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist.
Gist, who took office in July, said she was confident the new system would "make sure that we have the very best possible teacher in every classroom."
Students at the affected schools will see "high-quality educators who have risen to the top," she said.
The change came in response to a February letter in which then-Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters ordered the Providence school district to "introduce and implement incrementally criterion-based hiring and job assignment processes that are driven by student need rather than by seniority."
Supporters say the new system reduces shuffling teachers across the district and ensures that vacancies are filled by the most qualified candidates.
But in a district court lawsuit filed last month, the Providence Teachers Union called the commissioner's order an illegal breach of the union's collective bargaining agreement that harms students "by equating student need with discretionary decision-making by the building administrator."
State law grants the Department of Education significant control over failing schools, including the ability to break contracts. The union's lawsuit argues that this law violates the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the U.S. Constitution.
Union President Steve Smith said the district failed to work with the union when formulating the new policy and demonstrated "incompetence" in its implementation, ultimately creating more instability, not less.
"We have 109 teachers who did not have jobs who are going to be placed in temporary positions," Smith said. "That's 80 more than last year, under the old system."
In a Sept. 3 Providence Journal article, district spokesperson Christina O'Reilly disputed Smith's claim, saying that 97 percent of teachers had permanent assignments. But she acknowledged that about 70 of these teachers are serving as long-term substitutes.
The union, Smith said, was not necessarily opposed to an interview-based hiring process, saying it had successfully worked with the school district to staff Providence's charter schools similarly.
But he characterized the district's recent actions as capricious and unfair.
"The problem with the criterion-based hiring is that there are no criteria," he said, noting that seniority was an objective measure that had been agreed upon by both the school system and the union.
"We're hoping the judge will order the district to sit down with the union and negotiate," Smith said.
In response to the lawsuit, Gist said she would defend "the authority that I have to order these kinds of changes so that we can make the improvements that we need to make to ... our education system."
Michael MacCombie '11, who followed the controversy this summer as a member of the Providence Education Excellence Coalition — a group of students, parents and community members devoted to improving the city's public schools — said the coalition seemed to support the new policy.
But MacCombie, who coordinates Brown Students for Education Reform, a group that is part of the coalition, said he understood the union's concerns and believes both sides must work to ensure that the interview process is "fair and equitable."
"When the experience of having been in the system is a factor of teaching effectively within the system I think it should be considered," MacCombie said. But, he said, the old policy failed to "consider the entire picture" of what makes a good teacher.